As a child, I had the unusual privilege of combining French, British and American school systems. Using history textbooks from three different perspectives was a good way to learn that every nation tells its own story, and that history is never objective.
The Shock of the Anthropocene is a case in point. Written by two French historians, it takes a sideways look at the idea of the Anthropocene and explores some of the alternative ways to understand it.
To summarise how it is often presented, the Anthropocene is the moment that a careless humanity wakes up to the fact that its centuries of progress have made it a force of nature. The human influence is now detectable in the planet’s geology, and this calls us to the task of planetary management under the guidance of science and technology. Bonneuil and Fressoz have questions about all of these elements: what do we mean by humanity? How recent is this awareness? And were we really so ignorant of our effects on the planet?
Let’s start with humanity, because this is one of the book’s most important points in my opinion. “What is this Anthropos,” they ask, “the generic human being of the Anthropocene?” Talking about humanity as one abstract entity, with one total impact, obscures the vast differences in environmental footprint. It buries colonial histories, racism and climate justice, describing a humanity that is “uniformly involved – and, it implies, uniformly to blame.”
That’s obviously not the case. As a British citizen, I come from a country with two centuries of heavy fossil fuel use behind it. In Madagascar, where I went to that French school, the majority of people still don’t have electricity. Madagascar’s role in the Anthropocene is minuscule, and since Britain exported fossil capitalism to the rest of the world, its role is massive. Let’s not roll all of humanity into one and pretend that it has had a common experience.
Secondly, the book convincingly trashes the idea of a recent environmental awareness. How many accounts have you read of the green movement emerging in the 60s and 70s, perhaps awakened by the ‘pale blue dot’ photo of the Earth from space? That’s an American story. In reality people have spoken out against environmental damage from the earliest stages of industrialisation. “The period between 1780 and 1830 was marked on the contrary by a very acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society.” There were political or direct action campaigns against pollution or deforestation. Felix Nogaret wrote about the Earth as one interconnected organism in 1795, two centuries before the Gaia hypothesis. Charles Fourier noted “a decline in the health of the globe” in 1821. Charles Babbage warned in 1832 that CO2 emissions could change the atmosphere.
Alternatives existed too – Augustin Mouchot developed solar power in the 1870s, while wind power brought irrigated agriculture across pre-war America. And that suggests that where we are today is not the result of innocent blundering. “We entered the Anthropocene despite very consistent warnings, knowledge and opposition.”
So how can we think of the Anthropocene instead? The authors want to provoke discussion, so they present six or seven alternative angles. One looks at the role of military power, one at fossil fuels, one at consumerism. Another chapter considers whether this era would be better named the ‘capitalocene’. These different framings, each explored with a richness of historical detail, all have their own strengths and weaknesses. But they matter because “each account of ‘how did we get here?’ makes assumptions through which we frame ‘what do we do now?’”
The Shock of the Anthropocene is not a quick read, but it’s a rewarding one. It’s a densely packed book with more ideas per chapter than many other books on the Anthropocene manage across their whole pagecount.